Soon after arriving at WSU in 2006, I embarked on a journey with a passionate set of individuals to revive an industry that has remained in suspended animation since the early 1900s. An email from a pear farmer in Yakima urged me to apply for funding to do pear research. That was my first introduction to a segment of the Pacific Northwest fruit industry that, while long an underdog relative to apples, has long sought to reinvent itself for the 21st century marketplace.
I presented my ideas for a research project in Hood River, Oregon in 2007. I was soon to learn much more about the pear and apple industry. Apples are the major economic player while pears, though for decades– an economically stable crop, had not been able to hold much market share. Pears are difficult, not least because they confuse consumers with their special ripening needs.
It was the underdog quality of the industry, along with the passion I encountered when talking with a few growers that inspired me to try to champion a research program that would advance pears’ position in the global tree fruit market.
Passionate and inspiring stories are what I heard from Cashmere, Peshastin and Yakima in Washington to Hood River and Medford in Oregon, clear south to Lake and Mendocino counties in California. Equipped with a hand-held voice recorder I went from orchards to packing houses, in order to internalize the industry’s issues and to seek out the commonalities shared by growers regardless of regions. I was invited into pear farmer’s homes and was made an honorary member of the pear fraternity.
While not a part of my job description, such is the world of academics at a land grant university. You work both with the people and for the people.
Back in Pullman, I started collating the issues that pear industry members face. As a scientist, I had a strong desire to find solutions to the challenges faced by pear growers – these people I had come to care about.
“You can’t do everything,” several people warned me.
But the people in the pear industry have transformed me with their visions of a riper future, and so there is only one way to move: forward. A few people have vehemently discouraged us. But others joined us on the quest we are moving forward together. The camaraderie within our group strengthens my resolve to keep our plans for research and extension projects alive.
Having assimilated the issues, it was now time to address them. I reached out to my colleagues at Washington State University, Oregon State University, and the University of California, Davis. They suggested colleagues elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world who could bring scientific acumen and extension insights to our plans. Strangers became friends, and friends became the pear improvement family. We all started brainstorming ways to address the issues and the seeds of a global pear research community were sown.
The pear industry then did something unprecedented. It supported a large multi-investigator, multi-disciplinary project that I had the honor to coordinate. This lent further impetus to our efforts. A timely trip to Argentina facilitated getting the entire pear world together, further energizing our efforts and momentum.
The U.S. pear industry catalyzed the organization of the very first International Pear Workshop in 2011. National and global pear experts descended on to the Pacific Northwest to share their knowledge and to join our journey. The U.S. pear industry spoke in unison outlining the challenges faced by the industry.
To continue the journey, we needed funding and a $32 million project proposal, representing all the dimensions of pear industry challenges, emerged out of this activity. This document serves as a draft white paper, developed collaboratively, and that now guides the development of a pear improvement roadmap. The original proposal being too large has now been carved into small individual project proposals that are at various stages of submission with various funding agencies.
On the banks of the Potomac
While we were on this journey, I remained intrigued about how a ~$400 million value U.S. industry remained ignored for the last 100 years. The next logical step was to inform the country’s decision makers. I put all the relevant information together and organized a trip to Washington, D.C.
At a time when the Potomac river in Washington D.C. was garlanded by the cherry blossoms, the pear industry representatives from Washington, Oregon and California and I found ourselves meeting with state legislative staffers to brief them on the state the U.S. pear industry. The USDA-ARS leadership received us gracefully and we were able to inform them about the urgent need for pear research to keep it thriving in the years to come.
Miles to go before I sleep….
When I graduated from high school, the junior class traditionally bid farewell to each senior with a few lines from famous poems. Robert Frost’s famous lines were sometimes recited:
The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Those lines have taken on a new meaning for me and my teammates who have devoted the last few years working for and with the U.S. pear industry. As we stand at the culmination of a multi-disciplinary project that I had the honor of coordinating (along with several other projects led by other pear researchers), we have infused a never before seen momentum in pear research.
At this juncture, I wanted to reminisce about where we started and with this post thank and recognize the family of pear farmers and researchers who joined the journey. Collectively, we have now identified new rootstocks that we must import to reinvigorate the industry, drafted a pear genome, identified a bloom thinner and a chemical compound to regulate vigor, demonstrated additional ways to disinfect fruit surface, discovered a pre-harvest compound to maintain pear fruit quality through storage and post-harvest compounds to ensure that each time the consumer picks a pear from the shelf they feel as if they have won a lottery and keep coming back for more.
The journey to revive the pear industry continues…
Amit Dhingra, born in New Delhi, India, is a widely traveled researcher and a faculty member at Washington State University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of Washington State University.